It may be August but there is no sign of the pace of government slacking. David Cameron and his ministers have come into power with the clear view that they need to get on with things. That, they say, is the lesson of both the Thatcher and Blair governments: if you want to be radical, there isn’t a moment to lose.
So, in what is usually regarded as the ‘silly season’ when nothing happens because ministers have decamped to Tuscany, the new government is bucking the trend and is still coming out with fresh initiatives. The Prime Minister himself floated one earlier this week. It is that in future council house tenants should perhaps no longer have their leases for life.
Mr Cameron aired the idea in answer to a question put to him at a 'PM Direct' public meeting in Birmingham by a mother of two teenage children who said that she had been forced to sleep on a blow-up mattress for the last two years because her council couldn’t move her to more spacious accommodation. What was the government going to do about it?
The Prime Minister said the root of the problem was that there was not enough flexibility in the system of council housing to match the availability of particular council homes to actual need. The reason for that was that tenants had the right to keep their council homes for life and even, in some cases, to pass them on to their children. If tenancies were shorter, then it would be easier to match homes with needs.
He said: "There is a question about whether, in future, we should be asking when you are given a council home, is it for a fixed period? Because maybe in five or ten years you will be doing a different job and be better paid and you won’t need that home, you will be able to go into the private sector."
It is estimated that among social housing as a whole (including not just council houses but also housing association properties, where lifelong tenancies are available after a year’s probation) there are 234,000 overcrowded properties like the one lived in by the woman who asked the question, but 456,000 under-occupied homes, where there is at least one unused spare room. It is that excess of under-utilised council homes that has triggered the idea of ending lifetime tenancies.
At the moment it is only an idea and the housing minister, Grant Shapps, has insisted that any change would apply only to new tenants not existing ones. Mr Shapps argues that with a record 1.8m families on social housing waiting lists such a change is at the very least worthy of consideration. Advocates of ending lifetime tenancies argue that in addition to tackling the mismatch between need and availability, it would increase social mobility, a desirable end in itself.
But the Prime Minister conceded that "not everyone will support this and there will be quite a big argument". He was right. Within twenty four hours of his broaching the idea a bucket of cold water was politely poured over it by none other than the deputy leader of the very party with which he is in coalition government, Simon Hughes of the Liberal Democrats.
Mr Hughes courteously acknowledged that it was perfectly proper for "radical prime ministers" to float ideas but made clear he had little time for this one. It would, he said, "change the whole nature of public housing in England". Mr Hughes represents the inner London seat of Bermondsey and Old Southwark which has the highest proportion of council properties per head in the country. He said: "The fundamental reason why council property is so desirable is because you have security. For people in many walks of life … that’s fundamentally important."
He argued too that lifelong tenancies and indeed the inheriting of them help to make communities more stable. It has also been objected that ending the lifelong element would risk turning some council estates into ghettoes and that the move could act as a disincentive to people in that they might fear losing their homes if they took better-paid work which might render them no longer eligible for the council home they lived in.
Mr Hughes said that the way to tackle the problem of under-occupied council houses was not shorter tenancies but negotiation: people could be persuaded to give up larger homes for smaller ones when their circumstances changed because there were often many advantages to them in doing so. He was not against discussing the Prime Minister’s idea but it had to be approached with great sensitivity.
Mr Cameron almost certainly knows this. The issue of council housing has been a sensitive one for the Conservative Party for at least thirty years, ever since Margaret Thatcher introduced the policy of giving council tenants the right to buy their homes. Her political opponents thought the policy outrageous since, in their view, the real problem with council houses was the shortage of them. Selling them off would only make the problem worse.
But the policy was very popular with council tenants and when Labour came to power they accepted the political realities and kept the right to buy.
Criticism of the policy shifted to the fact that under neither government were enough of the proceeds of the sales ploughed back into new building of council properties. Instead housing associations were encouraged to provide more social housing and planning laws were changed to require property developers to include a proportion of social housing in all their residential developments.
But new house building has collapsed. It is expected that this year the number of new houses built in Britain will be fewer than 100,000, the lowest figure since 1924. In the last quarter of 2009 only 6,000 new units of social housing were built.
What's more, the new government has announced cuts to housing benefit as part of its drive to reduce government spending. The result, say critics, will be an increase in homelessness and a lengthening of council waiting lists as many existing beneficiaries of housing benefit discover they will no longer be able to afford homes in the private-rented sector.
So the pressures on social housing are set to increase. It is no wonder that the Prime Minister is floating new ideas for dealing with the problem. But, as Mr Hughes pointed out, this particular one was not part of the coalition agreement nor even mentioned in the manifestoes of either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. The 'big argument' Mr Cameron predicted he looks certain to get.
What’s your view? Do you think council tenants should have their tenancies for life or not? Should they be able to pass on their council homes to their children? Do you think abolishing lifelong tenancies would ease the problem of council house waiting lists or not? What do you make of the argument that for many council tenants the security of knowing that they cannot be kicked out of their homes is of fundamental importance? Do you think doing away with lifelong tenancies would threaten community cohesion and risk creating ghettoes or not? Do you think council tenants should have the right to buy their homes or not? And what would you do about the problem of record waiting lists for council homes?